When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
(The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, published by Scholastic in 2008).
I find present tense just feels uniquely awkward. The author is trying to freeze the main character's story into an eternal present that lasts for the whole of the novel. Present tense feels to me like a defiance of some of our oldest story-ing traditions. When someone starts a story with the words "once upon a time", it feels comforting, reassuring. Present tense takes away that comfort. It essentially says: "Once upon this time - now." We are no longer ushered into an era gone by. The story doesn't have that feel of history, of a reliable record set down by an observer. Instead, we have a strange, prolonged present that somehow spans a significant chunk of time.
The idea of present tense is, of course, to make everything feel more immediate. It's supposed to be gripping and to give the reader the idea that everything is happening now. But it seems to me that of necessity, a book entirely in present tense must feel somewhat artificial. The present is fleeting. If we divide time into three categories (the past, present, and future), the present will the shortest one of those categories. Because "now" is so immediate, it must be short.
Additionally, a writer who pens a novel in present tense is constantly having to find ways to sustain that style. Because it isn't the most natural way of telling a story, it is a more risky way of writing. For one thing, in order to write with correct grammar, the writer is obliged to stack up helping verbs inordinately in particular cases. Also, action scenes feel a bit unwieldy to me.
Writing in the present tense appears to be a new fad in YA novels, and it is likely something Suzanne Collins has inspired. But is it the clearest way to write? Is it a method of writing that will make the reader comfortable? Will it give them the desire to read the entire story through? Is it understandable? Is it elegant? Does it result in writing that feels natural - words that slip off the tongue with an excellent ring?
These are all worthwhile questions to ask. I have no problem with an author who uses present tense in a short story. A short story definitely feels closer to the present - it feels immediate and fleeting like "now" actually is. But a long novel written entirely in present tense seems to be a contradiction in terms to me.